April 4, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It is an image that has stuck with me for more than 40 years.
The Texas Longhorns were holding a scrimmage during their spring practice prior to their National Championship season of 1963.
Scott Appleton, who was an all-world defensive tackle who would win every award available in a few months, was watching from the sidelines as an official missed a holding call on the UT offense, preventing one of Appleton's teammates from making a tackle.
"Come on," barked Scott. "We're not out here for FUN."
Fast forward, if you would, to 2009, and a recent practice in the indoor facility fondly known as "The Bubble," where the Longhorns were going through one of their 15 practices that comprise the more than a month of spring drills.
Jack Ingram, one of the bright new stars of country music, was watching a Longhorns practice, and he marveled, "the impressive thing is, they are working so hard, and it is only March."
All of that spring work comes to a conclusion Sunday afternoon in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with the annual Orange-White scrimmage that will close the spring practice of 2009. A time for teaching, practice, learning and projecting will transfer over to the off-season program and summer workouts -- all of that in preparation for the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe.
Seldom has so much been packed into one afternoon.
First of all, the celebration will include a Fan Fest that will allow thousands of young fans who often never get a chance to see the Longhorns play in person to take their seat in the stadium for the scrimmage, which will be played under game conditions.
It will be the final appearance for the foreseeable future of natural grass in the stadium. Beginning right after the game, workers will begin removing the turf, which will be replaced by an artificial surface which should be ready by July.
Construction in the south end of the stadium has necessitated the shorting of the playing field by 10 yards, so Mack Brown and his staff determined that the marking for the "40" yard line would be removed. This was done out of tribute to the men and women of America's armed services, 40 percent of which are currently deployed.
So the day will be dedicated to the reservists, the veterans, and the regulars in the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force who have made up that critical element that first caused Texas Memorial Stadium to be dedicated to those who served in "The Great War" (World War I) when it was built back in 1924.
Mack's special guest for the day will be Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division Fort Hood. General Hammond was a quarterback at Southern Mississippi when Mack took his first job there more than 30 years ago, and he will speak to the Longhorn team before the scrimmage.
Paired with all of those elements surrounding the day will be a national telecast of the game by ESPN360 and a tape delay on ESPNU, which will be aired Sunday night.
The day will be filled with a visit from prospective athletes and committed recruits, as well as a crowd that will take advantage of what is supposed to be a perfect day in Austin. The Texas Relays, the annual spring track and field carnival, concluded Saturday. The same day, Longhorn football lettermen held a reunion at the same time many of the recent stars who are now playing in the NFL appeared in charity events around the city.
All of that is positive, and all of that is real. But for the players and the coaches of the current Longhorn team, the conclusion of spring drills brings focus to the future. A year ago, Texas came out of its spring practice with questions that caused those who do the rankings to allow the Horns to slip below the radar as the season of 2008 approached.
Such will not be the case this year.
Texas, coming off its fifth straight bowl victory and a 12-1 season, will be ranked in the top five of every national poll. With the weight of expectations comes the power of opportunity. And that is what the spring has produced.
The attitude through the 14 practices leading up to Sunday's game has been, as Jack Ingram pointed out, one of commitment. A lot has been accomplished. There are still questions which will be carried over to the August beginning of fall drills, but the most powerful thing about success is that it tends to beget success.
A coaching staff that remained intact has brought consistency and chemistry from the instruction part of the equation, and players who had success last season have built on that. That is one of the reasons Mack and his staff have chosen to start spring practice in late February. Carryover from the victory in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is a strong force. The early end of spring practice allows the Longhorns to concentrate on their academic work for more than a month before final exams, and it allows for an extended period where the off-season can be productive, and yet not accelerated.
In the days when Appleton and his teammates worked in spring training, there was an extended time with a lot of hardcore drills. Mack and his staff have worked their players hard; but history has given them a good gauge of when, and how hard, to work during the 15 practices that extend over the month that includes a spring break.
Still, Scott was right in one way. Football is hard work. Anybody who has ever played the game will tell you that. What we know is, the fun comes when you win, and a productive spring gives you every chance to do that.
So Sunday is a celebration. It is a reason to honor our military, take a look into the future that will be coming in September, and be a part of the evolving history of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
And all of it is free, which means the price is right for a special day that gives everybody a chance to realize that Scott Appleton might have been right as far as the players were concerned, but for those who bleed orange and follow Texas football.
It is a chance to simply have some fun.